Today, rid of its invaders — the Poles, Scandinavians, Germans and Russians — it's also almost entirely devoid of its Jews. Yet it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Jewish visitors will find much to see and learn in this area, some 4,300 miles from Philadelphia.
From the 1700s up through the 1930s, Vilna, as it was known, had its strongest Jewish presence. Almost 40 percent of the city was Jewish. They worshipped here, attended Yiddish and Hebrew schools, and contributed to a vital, thriving Jewish community.
That was all ended by the murder of 90 percent of Vilna's Jewish population during the Holocaust. With the perspective of time — and no longer encumbered by political repression — new Jewish monuments and museums are springing up.
An estimated 100 prayer houses and synagogues existed before Word War II. Fifteen years ago, Chabad opened its doors in an apartment house in town.
The one remaining synagogue building, the Choral Synagogue, was prominent in its time. Built in Moorish style, its name comes from the inclusion of a choir section, which was a nod to modernization and assimilation when it was built in 1903. On a typical Friday night, there are too few men to warrant opening the main place of worship, so the group meets in a small chapel.
This particular Shabbat, a Russian tour group arrives at prayer time. These college-age kids help fill out the seats of the main sanctuary. With its faux marble walls, elaborate moldings and domed ceiling, it's an inspiring place, but you can almost feel the ghosts.
And ghosts are with you when you walk through the streets of this neighborhood. Once it was the Jewish quarter; now it is called "Old Town." Shops line the cobblestone streets. A Jewish community center and former library were restored, and today form the site of the Austrian Embassy.
In the heart of what was the ghetto, all is charm and quiet. Traces of Yiddish wording can still be discerned on some buildings. Now stores, geared to tourists, sell linens and amber, celebrated products of the region. Pastry shops, antique stores, restaurants and chic hotels add to the tableau. What an ironic commercial contrast to its somber history.
Close by is Vilna's only kosher restaurant, the Kineret. Right near this white-tablecloth dining spot is a special building that has served the Jewish community for more than a century. It's been a concert hall, a community center, even a soup kitchen; these days, it is a museum dedicated to the Jews of Vilna and their culture.
In this exquisitely restored building, the Museum of the Vilna Gaon exhibit of Jewish artifacts — Torahs, silver Torah pointers, wooden plaques, art — represent 600 years of local Jewish history.
A current exhibit focuses on "Hidden Children" and the Righteous Gentiles who saved them.
A visit to Panerai Forest may be disturbing, but certainly is worth the time. This is where most of Vilna's Jews were taken and shot. Rachel Kostanyan, who lost almost 50 family members here, runs the Little Green House — a Holocaust Museum in town — where you will find original posters from the Vilna Ghetto, documents from the Nuremberg Trials and many other artifacts that make their case by their very existence.
Simple and Graphic
A chart from a German report lists the number of Jews killed in each country. It is simple and graphic: 220,000 Jews were in Vilna before the war, but afterward, only 3,500.
The placards make no sound, but one feels them shouting outrage. One room is devoted to Vilna's famous Jews, including violinist Jascha Heifetz; artists Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipschitz; and writer Roman Gary. A photo of Max Weinreich, the founder of YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, is on the wall; a repository of Eastern European Jewish culture and history, which has been based in New York City since 1940, YIVO got its start in Vilna.
Eliyahu ben Solomon Zalman, the "gaon" of Vilna (meaning "genius"), was a celebrated figure in the 1700s whose teachings and philosophy influenced many. A bust of him in the ghetto shows the rabbi as intelligent and thoughtful; you sense kindness.
It stands in a small square near his house on the street named for him. The gaon said, in effect: "If a man wishes to remain pure, he should stay at home."
You may follow his advice, but if you do choose to go to Vilnius and see its sites, you will be well-rewarded, certainly sobered, and perhaps inspired.